When Craig Kielburger was 12 years old, he discovered a passion for social justice after reading an article in the “Toronto Star” about the death of Iqbal Masih, a 12-year-old former child laborer from Pakistan who had been shot after speaking out against child slavery.
After learning of Masih’s story, Kielburger called together the 11 other members of his seventh grade class and planted the seeds for what would later become the non-profit organization Free the Children, with the goal of bringing children out of slavery and poverty.
Kielburger, this year’s Non Sibi speaker, spoke at All-School Meeting (ASM) on Wednesday about his involvement with Free the Children and about youth participation in global community service.
Kielburger encouraged students to take the initiative to bring about change and become meaningful leaders, regardless of their ages.
“When we built [Free the Children] we were in high school. People laughed at us and said we were young, naïve and idealistic and would never change things. In fact, people said so often that we were idealistic that we picked up that label and we wore it with pride,” said Kielburger in his speech.
“The single greatest challenge that the world faces is that we’re raising a generation of passive bystanders. And basically… all of these issues in the world—environment, lack of socio-economic development, poverty, environmental degradation—[they are] not beyond human capabilities,” he said in a question and answer session following the ASM.
Using his work for Free the Children as an example, Kielburger explained that there is no simple method of permanently lifting children out of poverty.
When Kielburger was a student, Free the Children initially funded groups that directly freed children from human trafficking and returned them to their families, according to Kielburger’s speech.
“In returning the child to the family, we never solved the problem of [that] poverty, that grinding poverty, that caused that child in many cases to be sold in the first place,” said Kielburger in his speech. “We have to take a step back and ask, when we’re sitting with community members… how do we solve this problem once and for all?”
Kielburger described how Free the Children uses its “Adopt a Village” model to give communities the skills, education and opportunities to combat poverty by building schools, creating systems of medical and water treatment and establishing small businesses.
“There’s no magic bullet to end poverty, but there are a lot of good [steps], and when you bring them together in confidence… that’s when we see solutions,” said Kielburger.
Kielburger also stressed the importance of collaboration for successful community service. He used the concept of “minga,” a Quechua word for people coming together to work for the collective good, as a model that Americans can follow.
Kielburger discovered the concept of minga while on a service trip in Peru. After his group realized they would not have time to finish the school they were building, the village chief proclaimed a “minga,” causing villagers to gather and help finish the construction.
“In Quechua [culture], there is a belief system that there is no future in isolation–that if we help one person, we help our collective future,” said Kielburger in his speech.
Kielburger urged students to consider the application of “minga” to Non Sibi Day and to American society as a whole.
“When the call goes out… hopefully, every single person throws in their hat to give a helping hand. I find it amazing that alumni across America and the world are continuing [Non Sibi Day]. I would challenge every single student here [that] when that day comes around–mandatory or not–every single student commits to that service,” said Kielburger in his speech.
“When America does the Super Bowl, Americans come together. The whole city grinds to a halt. When it’s the Grammy’s, you guys do celebrations. I’m always impressed by that. But aside from the occasional George Clooney telethon, there’s not much else. Where is the event that celebrates service, compassion, empathy in the world, especially for students?” said Kielburger at the Q&A session.
Inspired by the idea of “minga,” Kielburger started “Me to We,” a social enterprise aimed at “transforming consumers into socially conscious world changers,” according to the organization’s website.
Kielburger said that he hoped to call a “North American minga” through the organization’s “We Day,” an annual gathering of over 100,000 students in eight North American cities. Students earn an invitation to the event by doing community service.
The event is intended to gather a large group of students who have been inspired to enact global change, according to We Day’s website.
Kielburger also urged students to participate in Me to We through its leadership training programs and trips that bring students to participate in service programs in developing areas.
Students can travel in groups to China, Ecuador or Ghana to help build schools, teach local children and engage in native culture, according to Me to We’s website.
Kielburger believes that the greatest lesson he has learned about courage and standing up to enact change was from Santosh, an individual he met in Sierra Leone.
In Kielburger’s speech, he the boy, who stood up for peace in the face of a rebel commander during the country’s civil war. Given the choice between losing his right hand and joining the rebel forces, Santosh asked the commander to leave his village. The commander cut off his hand, and Santosh walked for hours to the border of Guinea, where he received medical attention from Doctors Without Borders, a global humanitarian medical organization.
Santosh returned to his village, learned how to carve with his left hand and sent himself and his siblings to school with the money he made from carvings. Years later after the violence, Santosh saw the commander at a market and shook his hand in a gesture of forgiveness.
“All I can say is thank God we never have to make those types of choices in our lives. The choices we do make ensure that no one ever has to make that choice. There is a lot of great social justice, volunteer service, for students at this school. If you’re not in one, join one. If you haven’t found the one that speaks to your heart, start one. If you have questions, we’ll help you,” said Kielburger in his speech.